After Public Land Seizures Fail at State Capitols, Backers Hit Up Congress and Presidential Candidates

Jul 5, 2015

By Center for Western Priorities

After a string of failures in state legislatures across the West this spring, proponents of seizing our American lands and giving them to the states are now turning to members of Congress and presidential candidates for support.

State control of our national parks and other public lands would be a heavy burden on taxpayers, but that hasn’t stopped modern day “Sagebrush Rebels” from aggressively promoting it. Following the actions of Utah—which in 2012 passed a bill threatening to sue the federal government if Congress didn’t hand over public land—fringe legislators in Western states continue to push for land transfers.

And if success is measured in number of bills introduced, then land transfer proponents have had a good year. Between January and June, lawmakers introduced 36 bills to enable or encourage public land transfers in 11 Western state legislatures. These included resolutions supporting transfers, studies of their legal and economic viability, interstate compacts to coordinate transfer efforts, attempts to chip away at federal law enforcement authority on federal public lands. Here’s a list of all of them.

But a review of how far these bills went in the state legislatures reveals major failures. Of the 36 bills introduced, only six passed.

Because they saw so little success in state legislative sessions in 2015, land grab backers are now focusing on a new target, which actually has the legal authority to make decisions about public lands: Congress.

So far in 2015, members of Congress have introduced ten bills or other legislative proposals that would undermine our system of public lands. These range from an amendment to the Senate’s budget proposal from Senator Lisa Murkowski that would enable land sell-offs and transfers, to the “Honor the Nevada Enabling Act of 1864 Act” from Representative Mark Amodei that would turn over all of Nevada’s public lands. Here are all of the proposals so far.

Even presidential candidates are jumping into the fray. Just last week, Senator Rand Paul told an audience in Nevada (that included Cliven Bundy) that he wants to “sell or turn over all the land management to the states.” Senator Ted Cruz has also touted his support for these ideas. It remains to be seen where other presidential candidates come down on the issue.

While transferring public lands may be a good talking point, it’s not the way to protect land in the West. Montana Senator Steve Daines learned this the hard way after taking an unpopular vote backing the transfer and sale of national public lands. Senator Daines was “blasted for the vote” by a broad swath of Montanans including sportsmen and small businesses owners.

To anyone tracking this issue, Senator Daines’ political miscalculation is no surprise: Public opinion research has shown not only that land transfers are not supported by Westerners (who love their public lands), but that voters are less likely to vote for candidates who support selling them off.